Google employees walked out in protest over sexual harassment policies and practices, and last week, the shareholders submitted a reasonable proposal that failed (along with all other shareholder proposals). Here's the proposal:
RESOLVED, Shareholders request management review its policies related to sexual harassment to assess whether the Company needs to adopt and implement additional policies and to report its findings, omitting proprietary information and prepared at a reasonable expense by December 31, 2019.
Now, I understand why this didn't pass--it never had a chance because the board recommended against it and Larry Page and Sergey Brin themselves control 51 percent of the vote. If you don't convince those two, it doesn't matter how brilliant your suggestion is--it's not passing.
But this was a mistake. A big one. Rejecting a proposal to assess sexual harassment policies basically states, "We're happy as we are."
Except, the "we" here includes all employees (and contractors) who aren't happy. And Alphabet leadership blatantly indicated that they were not interested in listening to the little people.
Underscoring shareholders' concerns, the company's cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both no-shows and Google CEO Sundar Pichai didn't answer any questions. All the proposals failed after a few minutes of ceremonial voting, an expected outcome given that Alphabet's board recommended votes against each and that Page and Brin control 51 percent of the company's voting power, despite owning 13 percent of its stock.
When you don't show up, you don't answer questions, and the voting is "ceremonial" rather than meaningful, you're screaming, "I don't care!"
And while businesses exist to make money, you can't keep a business going with unhappy employees. If you don't listen to reasonable proposals, you're not going to keep people happy.
Google did make changes to its sexual harassment policy after the walkout, but it's reasonable to want to ensure that these changes are working and effective. Here's what you need for a good sexual harassment policy:
Bright line rules
Sexual harassment law is full of gray areas. To be considered illegal harassment, it must be:
- Because of sex
- Offensive to a reasonable person
- The cause of tangible injury (economic, not physical, although physical injury would qualify)
- Severe or pervasive
So we might all say, "Well, obviously X is sexual harassment" but if it wasn't unwanted or the person wasn't offended or the perpetrator did the same thing to everyone regardless of sex, it isn't legal harassment.
That doesn't mean you have to allow everything. You can make stricter rules. For example, every sexual harassment policy should prohibit romantic relationships between managers and their reporting lines. It saves a lot of hassle when people know exactly what to expect.
Investigate every claim
Every sexual harassment claim deserves a full investigation. Saying both "We believe all women" and "Boys will be boys" results in rotten outcomes for everyone. Every claim gets investigated. You may wish to have an outside law firm investigate high-level people.
No "genius" or "executive" exception
Some people get away with bad behavior because they are so valuable to the company. That is a setup for a disaster. The law doesn't make an exception for rainmakers, and neither should your company--officially or unofficially. Part of the big problem Google faced was giving millions of dollars to accused executives. People don't like that and for good cause.
There should be a report every year detailing what happened and how it was fixed. While there is no need to name names (if you name a perpetrator, you often identify the victim), there is a need to let people know the company investigates every claim and handles problems swiftly.
Google should have at least pretended to listen instead of roundly rejecting every proposal. Especially one that was so benign.